May 27, 2012
Chances are if you are reading this blog, you already know quite a bit about tea, enough about it to spend time reading what some dope (me) has to say about it.
But, perhaps you’re a newbie to the tea world, brought here by typing both “tea” and “highly engaging blog” into Google. Perhaps you were brought here via my very entertaining and stimulating Twitter feed. Or perhaps you have just awoken from a three-day ketamine bender and found yourself staring at this page, with no recollection as to how you got here (or where your body hair went).
Whatever the reason, here you are, confused as to what an oolong is, why tea grown higher is generally better, or why tea bags are evil and should be destroyed on sight. Hopefully this long (very long) blog post will clear up some of these questions, and hopefully raise new ones, like “why is this blog post so much better than Wikipedia”?
Now, I’m not exactly an expert. I’ve really only been seriously drinking tea since the fall of 2010, which might as well have been ten seconds ago as far as level of experience goes. But I know enough to get anybody curious about the wide wonderful world of tea started off on the road to enlightenment, or whatever.
What is Tea? (Baby don’t hurt me…)
Tea is a prepared beverage made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis, an evergreen bush native to the area where China, Myanmar, and India meet, but tea can be grown in many other sub-tropical countries (Kenya being a major exporter) as well as New Zealand, Korea, and some parts of the west coast of North America. There are two sub varieties of C. sinensis used for tea: Assamica and Sinensis.
Every category of tea is made from the leaves of C. sinensis. What are commonly (to my great annoyance) called “herbal teas”, such as chamomile or rosehip tea, are not really tea at all if they don’t contain any C. sinensis leaves. A proper term for these “teas” would be herbal infusion, or tisane. Using either one will get you looked at funny, so stick with “herbal tea” unless you’re really super anal about these sorts of things…I know I am.
Since all tea comes from the same plant, the differences between “green” or “black” or any kind of tea comes from the processing after harvesting. The categories of tea are:
1. White tea (least processed, not oxidized)
2. Yellow tea (somewhere between green and white, not oxidized but “yellowed”)
3. Green tea (not oxidized)
4. Oolong tea (partially oxidized)
5. Black tea (fully oxidized)
6. Post-fermented (fully oxidized as well, plus a bunch of other stuff)
Now, the Chinese refer to what we call “black tea” as “red tea”, due to the colour of the brewed tea. What us Westerners would call “red tea” is actually roibos, a plant that grows in South Africa and is unrelated to the true tea plant. The Chinese reserve the name “black” tea for what we call “post-fermented” tea, and they can also call it “dark” tea. Confused yet? These aren’t the only nomenclature issues that are going to pop up, so it’s best to pay attention.
Now, I mentioned something called oxidation in the descriptions above. This process, also called (inaccurately) “fermentation”, is the natural destruction of the chlorophyll in the tea leaves by the leaves’ own enzymes. This process can be halted by roasting or steaming.
Let’s get more in depth about the different kinds of teas:
This is the least processed kind of tea. It is also probably the most recent; perhaps only 200 years old in its current form. History is hazy on this one. In any case, there are only two steps to making white tea: you wither it, and you dry it. Bango presto, you have white tea…sort of. White tea is pretty diverse and all kinds are very difficult to make, hence the (often) higher prices. Unlike green tea which is not oxidized at all, white tea undergoes a little bit of oxidation during drying.
The most famous white tea is probably Baihao Yinzhen, or Silver Needles, so named for the little white hairs that dot the tea buds. Other notable white teas are White Peony and Shou Mei. Some tea estates in Darjeeling (we’ll be getting there shortly) also produce white teas.
In general, white tea has a reputation for being “delicate”. This can be the case, and most white teas should be brewed with cooler water, but some don’t need such a gentle touch and can be brewed hot and long, giving you a punchy, spicy cup. Pay attention to what the person/company tells you to do…if they’re a good seller they will know what they are talking about.
White tea has been the focus of a health-food fad recently. It bears repeating here that WHITE TEA DOES NOT MAKE YOU LOSE WEIGHT. Exercise and eating right are the only healthy things that are proven to help you lose weight, and your doctor can help you with that far more than any tea can. Chugging white tea all day, especially that godawful bottled stuff, will only make you have to pee.
As long as I’m ranting about this, it has not been scientifically proven that any tea protects you from cancer or any other disease. Chemicals present in tea may help with this, but whether or not tea itself has clinically significant effects is still up for debate. Tea is basically benign, and unless you drink loads and loads of it every day or stuff it full of milk and sugar, it can do you no harm, and it’s tasty to boot. There are a lot of worse things you could drink, but tea is not a magic potion. Beware sellers who try to sell you tea based on this exclusively.
Something of an unloved middle child of the tea world, yellow tea lies somewhere between white and green tea in processing level. Basically the buds and leaves have a long drying phase wherein the dampened leaves yellow. This results in, no duh, a tea that appears yellow, and produces a yellow brew.
Yellow tea is pretty rare even in China, where it originated. It takes a lot of work to make and it’s not very popular. It’s getting easier to get here in the West, with most major vendors and a lot of little ones carrying at least one.
I myself have had exactly two yellow teas, some years apart. The taste is very delicate, moreso than a lot of white or green teas, and sometimes buttery. It is definitely different, and you should probably drink some eventually. Here are the famous ones:
Junshan Yinzhen: Possibly the favourite tea of Chairman Mao, which is kind of a dubious honour, really. Quite rare.
Huoshan Huangya: Comes from Anhui Province. Supposedly “peppery and fresh” according to the Almighty Wikipedia (I have never had a chance to try this myself, hence the consulting of the Almighty).
Meng Ding Huangya: This is the yellow tea I have actually tried. It’s very subtle and requires careful attention.
The grandaddy of them all, considering that green tea is the overwhelmingly popular choice amongst the East and Southeast Asians, whom as you may know invented the art and pleasure of tea drinking. Green tea is unoxidized, meaning that the enzymes in the leaf that cause oxidation are “killed” by heat, either by steaming or pan-firing.
There are probably well over three or four hundred different kinds of green tea in China alone, and tons more in Japan as well. Some Darjeeling estates are producing green teas as well, and Kenya produces green tea for the teabag market. There are smaller productions in Southeast Asian countries like Vietnam and Thailand as well.
It’s a big big world, this world of green tea. Despite the bewildering variety, some green teas have risen above the others and become commonly known in the tea world. This list is definitely not exhaustive, I’m only setting out the starting points. There is so much to explore here off the beaten path.
Longjing (Dragon Well) – The most famous Chinese green tea, and probably the first one Western vendors who offer Chinese greens will list. The dry leaves have a very distinct flat appearance, and to my nose smell like freshly baked oat bread with honey. You might smell different, of course. Dragonwell usually requires water that is well below boiling (85C, say, or as low as 75C for the finest grades) but not always. This tea, like all famous teas, is often faked. Pay a little bit more money to a seller who has a good reputation and you’ll enjoy one of the great treasures in tea culture.
Bi Luo Chun (Green Snail Spring) – In the list of Chinese Famous Teas, which is ever changing, Bi Luo Chun is always present, along with Longjing. Bi Luo Chun, however, is possibly even more revered. The tea is so delicate that a kilogram of it can contain well over 14,000 shoots (so says Wikipedia, anyways, for what that’s worth). The finest grades of Bi Luo Chun require very cool water, and the tea is known for having a ridiculous floral aroma and a very lovely fruit taste. Be aware also that you are gonna pay through the nose for this tea, so maybe you should save it for when you are more experienced. This one is certainly on my hit list.
Liu An Gua Pian (Melon Seed or Melon Slice) – Yet another member of the China Famous Teas posse, Gua Pian is sort of odd in the fact that it forgoes the new buds used in pretty much every other Chinese green tea, instead making do with the larger second leaf. The dry leaf somewhat resembles a melon seed, hence the name. My first experience with this tea was head-spinningly good, but I haven’t had it in a long time. From my memory it was very grassy and vegetal without being too much of either. Insert that jazz about buying from a seller with a good reputation, and treat yourself to a rightly famous tea.
Those are the three most famous Chinese greens in the west and the ones you’ll probably see first, though Longjing is way more common than either Bi Luo Chun or Gua Pian. There are tons more, enough to be intimidating, or, spun a more positive way, exhilarating. Dip your toe in the shallow end to start and then dive in; there will be some duds along the way, but the treasures will outweigh them in the end.
Almost all of the tea drunk in Japan is green tea, and by “almost all” I mean “100% except I’m covering my ass by throwing ‘almost’ in there.”
There are a few broad categories of Japanese tea: Gyokuro, Sencha, Bancha, and Matcha.
Gyokuro: This is the premier Japanese green tea, grown under the shade for about three weeks to stress the leaf into producing more tasty chemicals. Gyokuro is very, very sensitive to water temperature; the highest grades should be brewed at 40C, while more normal grades are usually brewed at about 70C. There is, of course, some debate about this, as there is in everything. Expect to pay a lot of money for good Gyokuro; it has limited production and high demand.
Sencha: This is the biggest and most popular kind of Japanese tea. It should be noted that unlike Chinese greens, Japanese greens (Sencha included) are steamed to kill the enzymes rather than pan-fried, imparting, of course, a different flavour. The highest grade of Sencha is called “Shincha”, and is the first tea picked in the spring, commanding higher prices.
Bancha: The later picked, low-grade, less attractive sister of Sencha. Bancha is usually used to make Genmaicha, a tea with toasted rice in it, which is quite tasty (you have likely had it if you’ve ever had tea at a sushi restaurant.) Bancha is also roasted over charcoal to make Hojicha, popular amongst the sick, old people, and children. Despite Bancha being low-grade, it has its fans, and you shouldn’t pass it up.
Matcha: The powdered tea used in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. Teas was originally drunk powdered by the Chinese (and was the only way it was drunk for many centuries), and this is how the Japanese learned to drink tea. The Chinese eventually moved on to loose leaf tea but powdered tea persists in Japan and is popular outside of the very formal tea ceremony. Matcha is made in much the same way as Gyokuro, with the obvious difference being that Matcha is then ground up into a fine powder. One prepares matcha by pouring hot water on the powder and whisking it with a special bamboo whisk, then drinking the creamy concoction. Matcha is also a popular flavour for confectionery in Japan, such as Kit-Kats or ice cream. You don’t need to do the whole ceremony to enjoy Matcha, but it is a bit more labour intensive than loose leaf tea.
Green tea is also produced in Vietnam, Thailand, Kenya, and Indonesia. I can’t say much about them, but I’d suggest you just stick with Japan and China as a beginner and move on to less well known areas later. South Korea also has a great tea culture and many of their green teas are very highly regarded, so give them a look, too. Traditionally black-tea producing areas such as Darjeeling are also producing green teas, with mixed success, but some of them are probably very good. Keep them in mind.
Next time we will discuss oolong, black, and post-fermented teas. Here is a photographic representation of how I feel about writing like five more of these posts: